"Civil Wars" Part 1 faced an unenviable position in Korra's Book 2 episode order. Any installment that followed the first two episodes was naturally going to be a bit quieter, considering all the place-setting and action that occurred in last week's opener, as the ramifications of said occurrences, particularly Unalaq's invasion, began to play out. As a result, I suspect some may cry "Filler episode! Already!" as the "most interesting" aspect of "Civil War" Part 1 occurred right at the end, with Unalaq arresting Korra's parents, in typical part-one-of-a-two-parter cliffhanger fashion. So, really, "Civil Wars" Part 1 had to deal with the events of the first two episodes AND do all the work to set up a hopefully climactic Part 2.
With both those burdens on its shoulders, "Civil Wars" Part 1 was a decidedly slow affair. It did involve too much back-and-forth for Korra as she shuttled herself between locales—namely, from the meeting of prominent Southern Water Tribe members or her family's home to the palace where Unalaq was, relaying messages or briefly fighting would-be kidnappers. Sure, we had brief asides to Bolin and the Creepy Twins, but they felt more like obligatory "Oh, we need some humor here" moments than more fully integrated parts of the overall episode.
Beyond those aspects, there was some important character work in the episode that deserves some discussion.
The thing we should probably talk about first is the elephant mandrill in the room, a.k.a the comments section. That's Korra's behavior from the last two weeks, and its extension into this week. After hitting her lowest point at the end of Book 1 and realizing how much she needs others, she's back to being gung-ho and looking for the quickest path to success.
I don't really have a huge problem with this. She's not completely mature and she doesn't have the meditative and self-reflective qualities that Aang did; given her personality, beating Amon—no matter how narrowly—would likely just feed into her sense of accomplishment, again giving her an inflated sense of power and ability.
What Korra lacks, as many teenagers do, is a sense of purpose, a sense of her duties as the Avatar. Aang had the war with the Fire Nation. Korra has... what? She's relatively aimless, and her act-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude prevents her seeing the right path. So when presented with the opportunity to do what she perceives as real Avatar work—dealing with spirits—of course she's going to take the path that appeals to her desire to be the Avatar, even if she doesn't really have an idea of what that means. (Note to future trainers of the Avatar: Start by teaching non-airbender Avatars airbending and philosophy, and then progress to moving big rocks and making fire.)
As this episode demonstrated though, Korra's re-learning the price of her attitude. The tension between Tonraq and Unalaq, between the Northern and Southern Tribes, is forcing her to confront the consequences of her behaviors. Would it be better if she didn't have to relearn those lessons? Yes, but some people need to learn lessons more than once, and given her stubbornness, it shouldn't be surprising that Korra is one of those people.
This isn't to say anything of relationship with Mako, but it also continues to be the show's least well-developed, not to mention interesting, aspect, and much like in Book 1, it feels decidedly tacked-on. Korra comes off as a little shrill, Mako comes off as uninvolved and placating, and as a couple, they're just not compelling. Sorry, MaKorra 'shippers. (Is that the name? I have no idea.)
I didn't discuss Varrick last week because I was waiting and hoping for the show to add some shading to the character beyond "kooky, fast-talking businessman," and I was happy to see that occur here. Yes, he's still a kooky, fast-talking businessman who has no filter, but existing alongside that is a man who knows how to read a room and get what he wants. He framed his calls for rebellion within a discussion of freedom, feeding a concern over controlling wealth and thus power.
I doubt that Varrick gives a flying kale cookie about the political atmosphere between the North and South so long as he's free to pursue his economic goals, and that came through in his speech. Wisely, however, he hitched his own economic interests to the social interest of the Southern Water tribe, so while they're clamoring for independence from an invading force, he can remain free to continue making money.
This is another wrinkle of modernization in Korra coming into play. Economics and social standing didn't factor much into Avatar: The Last Airbender apart from the districts of Ba Sing Se, but the fight against the Fire Nation was never framed in terms of economic freedoms or pursuits, just idealistic personal freedoms against an oppressive regime. Now, with global economic interests on the line, suddenly there are more hands in the pot, complicating our perception of the would-be rebels.
Then there's Unalaq. Up until the end of the episode, there was a degree of sympathetic well-intentioned extremist to Unalaq. We, as audience members, know that maintaining a balance between the Physical and Spiritual Worlds is important, and if that balance doesn't exist, there could be trouble for the entire world. Unalaq represents that impulse in us, that acknowledgement that what he's doing is necessary, and while we may stop just short of endorsing his behavior, we recognize the need for it.
Unlike Varrick, though, Unalaq is a little less forthcoming with his motivations in public. Like Varrick, he sings a good tune, one about uniting the tribes, bringing balance to the world, and opening up a spiritual Stargate to connect the North and the South—something I'm sure Varrick would be interested in, as a shipping magnate!—but his actions betray that. A desire to bypass a trial for his abductors and his surprise arrest of Tonraq and Senna showcased a less union-friendly mentality and more of a tyrannical self-obsessed one.
A few of you put forth the theory that Unalaq was influencing and/or controlling the spirits, and it's a thought that crossed my mind last week as well, though I didn't mention it. I think it's an increasingly viable theory, especially in light of that spiritual Stargate. I don't have an inkling of what his endgame might be if he's made a deal with the spirits, or is looking to harness their power somehow; I just know that such plots rarely turn out well for characters like Unalaq.
All of this leaves us with Tenzin, Bumi, and Kya and their search for the missing Ikki. Their scenes were much-needed, as this relationship dynamic was yearning to be fleshed out some. There's a considerable amount of dysfunction between these three, and I think it may take a few more nights of searching for Ikki to work it out. I think the most interesting thing to emerge from the situation, though, is a picture of Aang as a parent. We're familiar with him as a 12-year-old Avatar, and we have inklings of him as an adult Avatar, but Aang as a parent is a question mark. I like that he wasn't painted as a perfect father, choosing to dote on his youngest son who is also an airbender while also putting a lot of his attention into maintaining peace following a century-long war instead of focusing on his other two children
More than anything, though, it was rather refreshing to see that these three middle- to late-middle-aged adults on a show aimed at kids have problems, too—problems that younger audiences can grasp and relate to, but that still ring true for older audiences who have siblings. It may not have been the most exciting part of the episode, but it may have been one of the most deft.
– Asami was missing in action, without an opinion about the blockade or the presence to help Varrick make a case for action against Unalaq or anything else. I have no idea whether she was merely hanging out at a hotel or whether she somehow managed to get out of the area before the Northern forces arrived.
– Sly acknowledgement, show, about Mako's ability to break up with girls. Or, rather, how he doesn't seem to actually do it. I mean, did Asami and Mako actually split? To quote the Ember Island Players, "You know, it was really unclear."
AIRED ON 12/19/2014
Season 3 : Episode 13